Who needs a rear-view mirror? Kurt Busch doesn’t.
“I’m like, ‘Aha, I’m the old bull here,'” Busch joked.
The remaining cars left in the Daytona 500 were battling for NASCAR’s top trophy, attempting to salvage every last ounce of fuel left in their gas tanks. It looked like it would be the fourth time Busch would finish runner-up in the Great American Race. His hopes and dreams were nearly crushed like the left-front bumper of his No. 41 machine.
But in the midst of Turns 1 and 2, on NASCAR’s largest stage, Busch let his wings take control of his Monster Energy Ford. As Kyle Larson, a 24-year-old graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, sunk to the low line, enabling Busch to take the lead, there was a sudden ray of hope for the Las Vegas native.
From there, it was smooth sailing.
Not even a broken rear-view mirror in NASCAR’s ultimate race could harm the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s shot at pulling his new Ford into Victory Lane.
Battered and beaten, his Monster Energy machine looked like a Whelen Modified Tour car on steroids; or even scarier, an actual monster.
As Busch escaped multiple wrecks in his 16th attempt in the Daytona 500, adversity came crashing in with 30 laps to go. But instead of looking at the negatives, understanding his chance at glory could be halted once again, something changed in that instant within his mind.
“I looked at it,” Busch said during his post-Daytona 500 press conference. “I saw her in it. I’m like, ‘She’s just going to smile. She’s just going to figure it out.'”
Ashley Van Metre, Busch’s new bride, has single-handedly changed his life.
The old Busch might have panicked inside the racecar, yelling at his crew, overreacting and negatively impacting his on-track performance. The new Busch, however, is different, and it is thanks to Van Metre, a well-known polo player.
“It means the world to me that Kurt acknowledges me and appreciates me and loves me so much,” she said while watching her husband walk off the stage following his race-winning press conference. “That’s what I see and feel at home everyday.”
The pair started dating approximately two years before they got married. Busch proposed to her on Aug. 18 of last year, transforming her family’s barn into a what could be romantic movie setting, featuring rose petals, candles, her favorite meal and of course, her horses.
Come Jan. 9, 2017, the couple wed in Saint Barthelemy, with pictures only provided by the New York Times in the publication’s feature on the ceremony. And of course, Busch impressed his bride right away.
Who did he book to perform at the ceremony? None other than Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Yeah, that is quite the performance for a crowd of approximately 30, according to the Times.
“I tell you, age and wisdom, they come together,” Busch said, shedding back tears. “Youth is wasted on the young.”
At 38, Busch is now a husband for the second time. His first marriage to Eva Bryan lasted a few weeks short of five years; the couple filed for divorce in early June 2011.
But this time around, Busch is more mature and his commitment to his new bride have been easy to spot.
“I gave my heat to a beautiful bride, Ashley, this off‑season,” he said. “It’s been a fairy tale since the day I met her.”
The first time Busch took to the track during race conditions this year was during the Advance Auto Parts Clash, an exhibition contest at Daytona previewing the Daytona 500.
His car was soaked in flat black paint, representing NASCAR’s new premier series title sponsor, Monster Energy, which has been one of his main partners since 2012.
But 16 laps into the 75-lap event, everything went wrong in the race he wanted to use to help introduce the NASCAR realm to its new sponsor. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got loose exiting Turn 4, forcing his No. 48 Chevrolet to make a hard right turn into Busch’s racecar and sending him crashing head-on into the SAFER barrier.
But thanks to the new Mrs. Busch, his aspect was quite different.
“When you share a car like we do and when you’re in wrecks and they’re doing a super slow‑mo of your car going through the grass, that’s what my bride, Ashley, has turned me into such a positive thinker,” Busch said. “She’s like, ‘that’s such great exposure for Monster.”
While it was not the exposure the company nor Busch and his Stewart-Haas Racing team wanted to see to begin 2017, Mrs. Busch was not wrong given what would happen a week later.
“I think that we help each other with my strengths and his weaknesses and his strengths and my weaknesses,” she said. “We know how to pull the best out of each other.”
More adversity ensued for Busch throughout the week.
He started eighth in the Daytona 500 after finishing third in the second of two Can-Am Duel 150-mile qualifying races. For the majority of the race, he was running in the midst of the main pack, saving his equipment for what would eventually be one of the most special moments of his life.
With 71 laps remaining in the 200-lapper, the wreck known as the Big One occurred. A 17-car melee in Turn 3 created a Walmart parking lot on the apron of 2.5-mile facility.
Busch was one of those 17 cars. His damage, while not severe enough to send him to head to the garage and put an end to his hopes at winning, sent him to pit road for extensive repairs to what ended up being a badly bruised racecar.
He returned to the track, with his machine featuring a half-donut mark on the side of the driver’s side door panel by the No. 41 decal, band-aids on steroids to his right-front fender and to top it off, a silver lining on his right-side door.
As the laps continued to wind down, Busch methodically moved to the front of the field. His beat-up car in check, it was his time to shine.
With 30 laps to go, trouble occurred again. This time, it was inside the cockpit of the No. 41 car.
“To have the mirror fall off, and it broke on the left hinge, and so the right hinge was still mounted to the upper roll cage,” Busch said. “I took my right arm and tried to fix it. Now the mirror is going vertical. I couldn’t get enough angle in it to see behind me.”
And it was his calm manner that helped pave his path to the Winner’s Circle.
“I thought of the times I raced my dwarf car with my dad as my owner and crew chief,” he said. “I watched that little dwarf car without a mirror. You go off intuition, off momentum, off sound of other cars.”
When the majority of the leaders began to dip down low, waving their hands out the window, signaling they are running on fumes, Busch took control. From the backstretch to the time he entered the tri-oval, being greeted by a full crowd as the Sun set on that Sunday afternoon with not a cloud in sight, nothing could stop him from becoming a Daytona 500 champion.
While team co-owner Tony Stewart never drove one of his racecars to Victory Lane in the Great American Race, Busch’s triumph was an emotional one for the recently retired three-time Cup Series champion.
“If I knew all I had to do was retire to get it done, I would have retired a long time ago,” Stewart said, smiling during the post-race press conference. “For every driver, there’s a point where you step out of the car and you do something different. To have an opportunity to come back this year as an owner and still have the opportunity to be where we’re at right now, I mean, that’s a pretty exciting feeling.”
But the common theme for Busch throughout the press conference was unusual. Instead of preaching about his sponsors, team and new manufacturer Ford, he spoke about Van Metre.
“To see him in this race setting, when he has so many other things to think about and he’s going 200 mph, to me it’s the last thing you should be thinking about is me,” she said, grinning while glancing over to see her husband taking selfies for the NASCAR Snapchat account. “Just focus on winning in the car. But it really does mean the world to me.”
The positivity Busch had inside of himself on that Sunday afternoon has always been there, Van Metre said, whether he realized it or not.
“It just takes a little bit of practice in certain situations and believing in yourself,” she said. “Kurt feels that love and confidence now, and he’s able to be positive within himself.”
Ever since Busch joined Stewart-Haas Racing, his life has been different.
No longer is he seen as the agitated racer who has run-ins with peers and reporters. Instead, he is establishing himself as someone who is mature, someone who knows he almost lost it all.
When he looks back to the 2017 Daytona 500 several years down the road, or maybe even while reading this, he will continuously remember how lucky he is to not only have landed a ride with Gene Haas and Stewart, but to have every event in his life occur the way it did all for one reason.
That reason is simple: To meet the love of his life and have his dreams come true on and off the racetrack.
While some saw the organization’s signing of Busch to be a gamble, the team thought the opposite. As Haas explained, “When we met in a steakhouse in Indianapolis, I just said, ‘Would you be interested in driving for me?”
The answer was yes, and ever since, the old Kurt Busch is gone. He is just a memory that the mature, newly married Busch might not want to forget, but to continue learning lessons from.
You live and learn. While Busch has certainly experienced events that were not ideal, he is learning to cope with the past and to move on, making him the best Kurt Busch that he can be.